June 2008

Soldiers’ stories

By Joseph T. Glatthaar
By Martin Dugard
By Stephen V. Ash
By Andrew Ward
By Julia Keller
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Joseph T. Glatthaar's General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse offers a cradle-to-grave recounting of the Army of Northern Virginia, the South's main battle force for the duration of the Civil War. Glatthaar provides everything we might come to expect from such a serious tome: authoritative background on the army's founding, its key generals (especially Robert E. Lee, who took command in 1862) and its major campaigns and time-honored engagements (Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, etc.) But Glatthaar also does something that distinguishes, and should well establish, his volume as a new, major one-stop source on the ANV: he profiles the everyday soldier. The author's research is exhaustive, and he quotes extensively from contemporary accounts (diaries, letters, etc.) that tell us where the rank-and-file Johnny Reb may have hailed from, his family status (generally not from the moneyed class), his attitudes on the war (usually enthusiastic, at the beginning anyway), the ammunition he used, his religious beliefs and the rigors of his daily camp life (generally tough going, especially as the fortunes of war turned downward). On a broader level, Glatthaar does what every Civil War historian must, offering appropriately detailed discussions of battles within a strategic and political context, with good maps and archival photos of division and corps commanders rounding out the coverage.

A war begun for spurious reasons, initiated at the behest of a U.S. president whose term in office amounted to little more than the flexing of American might. As familiar as that might sound, we're actually talking about the Mexican War and President James K. Polk. Odds are the territory gained in that conflict – including California and New Mexico – may very well have accrued to the U.S. anyway. Yet besides its land-grab aspects, the Mexican War also proved important in later years because it was there that many commanders in the Civil War got their first real battle experience. Martin Dugard's The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848 does a wonderful job of explaining the war's origins and political ramifications in the aftermath of the fight for Texas independence. Thereafter, the author follows the lives and careers of the later-to-be-famous military men – including Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, Joseph Hooker, eventual Confederate president Jefferson Davis and many others – leading up to and including their performance on the other side of the Rio Grande. American forces in Mexico were commanded by Gen. Zachary Taylor, himself elected U.S. president shortly after the war's end. Dugard gives us a full strategic and tactical history of the war, with the coverage of the noted individuals folded neatly within, including the roles they played at battles whose names – Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Buena Vista – are rarely ever mentioned in common contemporary discourse.

University of Tennessee history professor Stephen V. Ash is noted for his rigorous research and his capable, almost novelistic, way of telling a historical tale. He brings those gifts to Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War, which, unsurprisingly, will evoke memories of the story told in the 1989 film Glory. The key player here is Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an educated, moralistic New Englander with a very public abolitionist streak. In March 1863, Higginson gathered 900 African-American soldiers in South Carolina and led them, by land and sea, to Jacksonville, Florida, where their efforts helped to assert territorial control over the Confederate Army, while also sending a message to Southerners (both black and white) about freedom. This mission was relatively short-lived and its strategic importance has never been emphasized in general accounts of the Civil War. Yet it was the first instance where black troops faced live bullets and served effectively alongside white troops. The 1st and 2nd South Carolina's professional deportment also alerted President Lincoln to a new reality – that recruitment of black troops for the Union war effort could begin in earnest.

If there is one area of recollection on the Civil War not yet exhausted, it's certainly the voice of the slave. The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves is a remarkable volume, which, in its singular way, provides the reader with a fresh perspective on the conflict. Author/compiler Andrew Ward has "sifted from literally thousands of interviews, obituaries, squibs, diaries, letters, memoirs, and depositions" to capture a slave's-eye view of events, arranged in a chronological narrative from antebellum 1850 through war's end and Reconstruction. This "civilian history" is told with unflinching honesty in a deeply affecting vernacular, the quoted material offering valuable insights not only into the slaves' personal plights, but also into the defeated lives of their former masters. There's humor, irony and wisdom in these pages, and the mix of Ward's astutely rendered factual setups with the testimonies of the blacks who lived the history truly explores new historical ground.

Chicago Tribune writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Keller travels interesting historical and sociological roads in Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel, her account of the development and marketing of the Gatling Gun. The Gatling is associated with the Civil War mainly because inventor and businessman Richard Jordan Gatling tried mightily to get the Union army to adopt his innovative, crank-operated "machine gun." In fact, the Gatling was used very little during the war, but was found valuable later in the U.S. Army's hostilities against Indian tribes, not to mention as a curiosity item in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Keller draws an interesting parallel between Gatling and atomic bomb mastermind J. Robert Oppenheimer, both of whose weapons were designed with the ultimate goal of saving more lives than they claimed.

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